Whither Competition?

Now, this may seem like I’m contradicting the opinion of the guest blogger last week. However, I’m not referring to the endless pursuit of rankings and grades.

I’m meaning the fantastic things that can happen when competition is used as an instructional tool. I’m meaning having students race to solve puzzles, or sort number cards into Pythagorean triples. I’m meaning getting a wild energy in class, and having students speak up who never said a word before.

In most of the work on social technology I’ve been reading, it’s paired with the word "cooperation". What happened to competition? Why is it so wrong?

This concerns me because mathematics is particularly suited to competition. Some competitions are downright legendary. Solving problems in high-level math competitions can lead to thinking that shatters the hierarchy of intelligences, creating wonderful things I still don’t fully understand.

What’s wrong with students competing to solve an Internet math hunt, or students challenging each to ever-harder problems?

I simply implore technology coordinators: please consider the possibilities competition can offer.

Goodness, it’s been a week already? I feel like I’ve just nicked the surface of this territory. I’ll try to continue with things I couldn’t fit next week at my blog. I’d like to thank everyone for their comments; I learned much more than I ever suspected possible, and I’ll be closely following this blog and others for new developments.

Jason Dyer, Guest Blogger

6 Responses to “Whither Competition?”

  1. Competition has its pros and cons. I’ve been looking forward to reading Alfie Kohn’s work on it but to be honest haven’t found the time. I have done some reading into gender differences in learning and with a little self style action research have noticed that male students in particular respond very well to competition.

    I tracked the grades of my class through the first semester. The second semester we set a class goal for each test in terms of average performance. I left a stingy incentive like brownies or coffee and donuts if we met the goal. This simple task of adding competition increased the average low performer male (those who averaged a D or F on tests for semester 1) up 40% on average. Granted it was an incredibly small sample size but it was phenomenal to watch these students respond. The girls averages remained the same.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on competition in the classroom. Although I have not specifically tracked its effect in my classroom, overall, I see an improvement. Currently, I am teaching school aged students with severe developmental disabilities and even encouraging them to “outdo” one of their classmates or “finish their work first,” has encouraged them to remain on task and be more attentive to what I am teaching them.

    A little competition never hurt anyone. We all have to deal with it in the “real world,” why not prepare our students for the pressures of competition in school once in a while?

  3. “We all have to deal with it in the “real world.”

    What other real world values should we teach our kids? Clearly you believe schools are in the business of teaching all we can about real life.

    How will you go about teaching these:

    1. People can be mean and hurtful. Maybe we should belittle them? Tolerate bullying? After all, they will be better off for it in the “real world”

    2. Some people will lie and cheat you. Maybe we can begin to condone and promote teachers lying to students and parents. And maybe we should accept cheating. After all, the kids will learn a valuable lesson and the parents should already know that people lie and cheat (often for personal gain – i.e. competition) in the “real world”.

    3. Promote fighting. After all, in the “real world”, fighting is a reality and often necessary. Hey, we can begin preparing them for the real world by organizing fight clubs?

    Bottom line: schools should be models of the world CAN be, not what the world IS.

  4. Oh, I almost forgot. Liz and jason, you might want to read and watch this: http://www.ed4wb.org/?p=39

  5. “We all have to deal with it in the “real world.”
    To accept this position is to accept a tragic, and passive posture. One of the reasons competition is so entrenched in the American way of life is because it’s so often used in schools. “The consequence of competition and the cause of competition are reciprocally related, just as the consequence and cause of drinking salt water. When we talk about competition, we are talking about a vicious circle: the more we compete, the more we need to compete.”
    “…compared to other ways of rewarding people, competition is the most controlling (and thus the most undermining of intrinsic motivation)”. Last two quotes from: No Contest, by Alfie Kohn, pgs. 113, 242, respectively.
    (Mike: I’ve enjoyed your posts tremendously. It’s especially nice to read your commentary, coming from an admin.)

  6. I believe there are two types of competition. There is competition against yourself – seeing how far you can push yourself to succeed and to stretch your mind. This may also include whole class “competition” in the sense that all students are competing as a team to reach a common goal. The other type of competition seen in the classroom is pitting classmates against each other. Despite the fact that this type of competition is a great motivator to some students, it should be used less often.

    I believe what is more beneficial is to create a classroom environment where students see themselves as individuals who each bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. I agree with the previous posters who seemed to think that having competition in the classroom as preparation for the “real world” is harmful.

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